Rockefeller Chapel’s Tea and Pipes showcases the organ

Tom Weisflog – Aaron Gettinger


A small crowd gathers every Tuesday by 4:30 p.m. in Rockefeller Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave. It’s tea time: they pause to brew a cup, taking milk as they see fit. They settle into the sanctuary pews for a free and secular half hour of oftentimes sacred music.

Tom Weisflog, having driven to Hyde Park from Manteno, Illinois, a small town north of Kankakee, enters and sits at his organ. Designed by Ernest M. Skinner, it is massive and plays compositions from the Romantic period particularly well. There are 8,565 pipes that are arranged in 132 ranks, the technical term for a set of pipes. There are 147 stops, mechanisms that affect the way wind enters the individual pipes, which changes the tonal qualities. When one “pulls out all the stops,” the organ plays with the sum capacity of its sound.

“It’s a very colorful orchestral instrument,” said Weisflog. The mechanical Baroque organ in Bond Chapel, 1050 E. 59th St., is particularly good for playing Bach.

He plays with every appendage—on four manuals, or keyboards, with his hands and a pedalboard with his feet. He’s 71 and originally from Niagara Falls, New York. His mother “dabbled” in piano—when his older sister started lessons, he, at age 7, wanted to show her up. He did, and she quickly discontinued them.

At age 8, Weisflog went to an Easter sunrise service at a local Lutheran church; he describes it as a “transforming event” and started lessons under the church’s organist at 15. He studied chemistry at the University of Rochester but spent many hours playing organ at the renowned Eastman School of Music. Drafted in 1969, he enlisted in the Air Force, was stationed in Spokane, Washington, and never deployed. He taught organ as he could before coming to the University of Chicago in 1972 to pursue a doctorate in chemistry.

Weisflog did not get along with his advisor, and he kept returning to Rockefeller Chapel. “Eventually, the organ won out,” he said. He has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera, Grant Park Symphony Chorus and the William Ferris Chorale. In 2000, he became lead organist at the U. of C.

A small crowd of white-haired people and students gathered on a recent Wednesday, stopping to steep tea in the vestibule. Easter decorations were still up around the altar. Weisflog’s first piece, a choral by Romantic Belgian composer Joseph Jongen started slow and sustained that tempo, but, in time, the volume swelled. The final resonant chord lingered for a few moments after Weisflog raised his fingers from the keys.

There is no instrument so grand as the organ—so virtuosic in its demands, so diverse in its effect,so majestic and awesome in its sheer power. It is almost akin to a whole orchestra in one instrument, with its buzzing bass notes, frilly flute-like upper registry and great, trumpet-like blasts.

After another slow piece, a pastorale by Félix-Alexandrew Guilmant, Weisflog played a delightfully counterpoint-heavy Baroque partita by Jean-François Dandrieu. The notes sounded like they were chasing after each other in the piece’s ample trills.

In spite of its span and scope, Weisflog is concerned about the organ’s future. Formerly organ-reliant Reform Jewish or Christian congregations are increasingly turning to guitars, percussion and pianos—what Weisflog calls ”populist” instruments that do not require a professional musician—for sacred music. The number of conservatories and universities that teach organ has been decreasing, and an organist’s salary is stagnant and low both in Europe and the United States.

The recital concluded with the adapted finale of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2—the world-renowned Resurrection Symphony. Weisflog arranged the piece himself. It took up half the concert’s total length. The piece meandered, self-assuredly taking its time. All the bits started to unite into a singular form, accented at one point by chimes. It grew louder and louder before a soft measure, then a final series of chords, then applause.

Connie Bradley, an “organ enthusiast” and Hyde Park High alumna, said she can play “a chord or two” and likes “big, flashy, showy stuff.”

“He has a lot of fun announcing he’s going to do the state trumpet,” Bradley said of Weisflog, naming one of the organ’s great stops. “It’s just fabulous.”

Ara Hanissian, a first year at the University, was attending Tea and Pipes for the first time and loved it.

“There was a lot more dynamic range than organ pieces I’ve seen in the past,” Hanissian said. “In this really beautiful space where everything psychoacoustically is just really beautiful, that series of swells he did towards the end was just really powerful in conjunction with all the ornamental decoration and the beautiful stained glass. It was just a really great recital.”

For his part, Weisflog said he only missed two notes over the course of the recital. He urged bodies of worship to incorporate the many centuries of organ music, even “fiendishly difficult” contemporary pieces, into services. The organ can lead congregational singing because it’s a ‘wall of sound’ that can fill the building,” he said. “Piano and guitar have to be amplified. An organ can sustain.”